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12 of the First Arab Americans

posted on: Jan 29, 2021


By: Ivey Noojin/ Arab America Contributing Writer

Arab Americans are often a minority that is forgotten in society. We hear on the news celebrations of the first African American or Asian American, but we rarely hear this community in the United States celebrated for their accomplishments. Acknowledging the first Arab Americans is integral to showing other immigrants or descendants of immigrants from the Arab world that they too can do something historic in this country.

This lack of acknowledgment has a lot to do with the hyper-intensity and sensitivity to terrorism in the United States. Many people do not want to acknowledge that Arab Americans exist, much less commend them for making history. That’s why it is important for us here at Arab America to remind everyone of the good Arab Americans are doing within our society.

This list only encompasses 12 people, which is merely a small portion of all of the record-setting Arab American individuals.

12 First Arab Americans

George Kasem

Kasem was the first Arab American elected to serve in the U.S. Congress. He was a Democratic representative from California and returned to his law practice after one term. Before Congress, he served in World War II in the Army Air Forces. Kasem went to undergraduate and law school at the University of Southern California. He was born in Oklahoma to Lebanese parents.

Robert Saleh

Saleh is the NFL’s first Arab American coordinator. Starting in 2017, he has worked as the defensive coordinator for the San Fracisco 49ers. Dearborn gave him a key to the city after he helped the Seattle Seahawks, where he worked from 2011 to 2014 as the defensive coach, win the Super Bowl in 2014. Saleh earned a degree un finance from Northern Michigan University. He was born in Michigan to Lebanese immigrants.

Sherrie Mikhail Miday

Miday was the first Arab American to serve as a judge in the U.S. In Cleveland, she worked as a prosecutor for three years and as an assistant to the judge for another three years. The general populace elected her to be judge for the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas in Ohio in 2016. Miday studied as an undergraduate at John Carroll University and then earned a doctorate in legal studies from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She was born in Ohio two years after her parents immigrated from Egypt.

Michael Berry

Berry was the first Arab American and Muslim lawyer in Michigan. He was also the only Muslim American who had a terminal at a major airport in the United States named after him. The U.S. government sent Berry and his family to Lebanon and Egypt in 1966 to act as goodwill ambassadors for the country. He was the chair of the Congressional Democratic District throughout the 1960s and worked in the Wayne County Road Commission until 1982. Berry received an undergraduate degree from Wayne College and a law degree from Detroit College. He was born in Michigan to Lebanese parents.

Suzanne Sareini

Sareini was the first Arab American elected to the city council in Dearborn, Michigan and served for six terms, beginning in 1989. She was a Republican that represented District 15 in the state. At the time, she was one of few practicing Muslims to hold a public office in the U.S. Sareini has owned several restaurants and has worked as a realtor. She was born in Dearborn and has Lebanese heritage.

Justin Abdelkader

Abdelkader was the first Arab American to play in the NHL. He currently is an NHL winger for the Detroit Red Wings, who he helped win the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009. He was the first rookie to score two consecutive goals in the Stanley Cup since 1981. Abdelkader went to college at Michigan State University, where he played hockey and scored the winning goal in the 2007 NCAA Championship. He was born in Michigan and has Palestinian and Jordanian heritage.

Donna Shalala

Shalala was the first Arab American to serve a cabinet position. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, where she worked for eight years and become the longest-serving official in the position. She began her career as a political science professor and became chancellor of the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1988. After her time working for the White House, Shalala became president for the University of Miami in 2001. She currently is running for Congress in the 27th District of Florida as a Democrat. Shalala received a bachelor’s degree form Western College for Women and a Ph.D. from Syracuse University. She was born in Ohio and is of Lebanese descent. Her father was one of the first Arab Americas to graduate from Ohio State University.

James Abourezk

Abourezk was the first Arab American senator in the United States. He served in the Navy for four years. Abourezk was elected as a Democrat in Congress for South Dakota in 1971. In 1973, he became a senator for the state. After his last term in 1979, he resumed his law practice and began a career in writing. Abourezk graduated from South Dakota School of Mines as a civil engineer in 1961 and then earned a law degree from University of South Dakota. He was born in South Dakota and is of Lebanese heritage.

Fawwaz T Ulaby

Ulaby was the first Arab American winner of the IEEE Edison medal, which is the oldest and most coveted medal for electrical engineering in the U.S., in 2006. He is currently a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at University of Michigan and was the vice president of research there from 1999-2005. He has directed multiple projects funded by NASA to map the terrestrial environment of this planet. Ulaby received a bachelor of science degree in physics from the American University of Beirut and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He was born in Syria and grew up in Lebanon.

Ameen Rihani

Rihani was the first Arab American to write a novel in English. He was born in Lebanon and moved to the United States in 1888 at 12 years old. He went to the New York Law School in 1897 but ultimately dropped out due to a lung infection. Rihani then moved back to Lebanon to teach English. His first translation of Arabic to English was published in 1903. In 1905 he isolated himself in the mountains of his homeland and wrote in Arabic multiple essays, short stories, and poems. It was during that time in his life when Rihani wrote “The Book of Khalid,” which ended up being one of his most famous pieces of literature and the first novel in English written by an Arab.

Rima Fakih

Fakih was the first Arab American, and Muslim, to win Miss USA in 2010. She won her first pageant at 19 years old. She was the first Miss Michigan to win the Miss USA title since 1993. Since then, she has appeared on several films and television shows. Fakih earned a degree in economics with a minor in business administration from the University of Michigan. She was born in Lebanon and immigrated to the United States when she was seven to escape the civil war.

Michael A Monsoor

Monsoor was the first Arab American to be awarded the Medal of Honor, which is the most prestigious decoration someone in the military can achieve. He was a Navy SEAL during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006 and saved two fellow SEALS due to his bravery at his final moments of life. He was born in California to a Lebanese and Syrian father.

It is important to recognize the people who have welly represented the Arab American community. They also have opened doors that were previously not available to them. We should celebrate those who have made history because it will only make it easier for us to follow in their footsteps.